Koffee: "If you have the talent, that's a start. But you need the courage"

Introducing Koffee, the young female reggae artist completely reinvigorating the genre and the fifth cover of The Get Up Stand Up Issue.

by Hazel Ong and Frankie Dunn
|
22 November 2019, 1:00pm

Koffee's story originally appeared in i-D's The Get Up Stand Up Issue, no. 358, Winter 2019. Order your copy here.

Hold on, what’s that uplifting sound sweeping across our downtrodden globe? It’s Koffee! The 19-year-old, born Mikayla Simpson in Spanish Town, Jamaica, has fast become a familiar face on festival stages and in the charts. She also made a little bit of history in the spring by becoming the youngest artist to top Billboard’s Reggae Chart with her debut EP, Rapture. In its energetic lead single "Toast", a Major Lazer-produced celebration of her whirlwind musical journey so far, Koffee dances through her hometown in a video that’s now had more than 80 million views. A collaboration with Ed Sheeran, Justin Bieber and Chronixx followed, along with massive summer singles Throne and Rapture featuring dancehall’s Govana. With more guaranteed hits in the pipeline, and a friendship with Rihanna blossoming, this teen talent is on a mission to spread positivity to kids present and future.

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Hi Koffee! It’s been such a big year for you. How are finding it all?
I try to take things in my stride, one step at a time. My mum guides me through everything and I look up to God as well. You have to stay focussed on the right things all the time.

Tell us about your mum.
She’s a single parent, she took great care raising me. I was raised in the church as well, in God and positivity and the bible.

What was it like growing up in Spanish Town?
It was pretty quiet. It’s not a big city environment, it’s got small town vibes. Very simple, very down to earth. It gets so hot too, so lively. I miss the weather when I’m not in Jamaica. I hate it when it’s cold.

Did you have a feeling that Toast was going to be a hit?
I was really nervous about it. I’d been doing roots reggae until then and Toast is such a different vibe in its production. I was wondering whether my country would accept me doing something a bit more pop.

Which of course they did. The song’s all about giving thanks. What are you grateful for?
My journey. It’s provided so many opportunities for me, I got to give thanks to that. Music presented itself as an opportunity and since then it’s been strictly blessings.

Fated! So what was your journey to making music like?
When I was 14 I was really influenced by artists like Protoje and Chronixx, so I started writing lyrics. I saw myself as more of a writer than a performer, but when I got the chance to perform for the first time I got this confidence, this assurance that maybe this could be for me. It built me up. It all came from that.

koffee shot by mario sorrenti


What did you want to be before that?
I wanted to become a pharmacist, so I was studying sciences. I was very strict about school.

How did your mum feel about you switching to music?
She was immediately proud of me. She never doubted me. She comes to every show that she possibly can. She’s very supportive.

Reggae and dancehall have global popularity now. How do you think they’ve evolved with the times?
Well reggae started off as a conscious meditation, people singing about the realities of their lives, the feeling of being in Jamaica. Reggae is down to earth, it’s day-to-day life. I’m 19, so I’m trying to tune into my peers, what they’re into, and make music that’s relatable to their day-to-day lives.

As a young female reggae artist, you’re something of an anomaly.
In Jamaica, parents put a lot of emphasis on going to church and going to school. It’s not easy to step out of that box. It begins with having the courage to do it, the will. If you have the talent, that’s a start, but you need the courage. It can be a strict environment. They’re male-dominated industries, reggae and dancehall, so there’s a fear that it won’t work out if you’re female; that maybe it’s safer to stick to being a doctor or a lawyer. It’s a struggle but I’m staying positive, doing what my environment allows me.

Totally. So what kind of expectations do you have of yourself?
To remain positive, to remain spiritual, to remain a good example to the youth. To be inspirational. Like Bob Marley — he was so positive all his life, so influential and substantial. I’m trying to be inspired by his purity. The way he took his experiences, his environment, and made it relatable to the whole world.

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Did you grow up listening to Bob Marley?
Everyone in Jamaica did. We cherish him.

It’s pretty cool that Rihanna is a Koffee fan…
I’m a fan of Rihanna too!

Have you been working on music together?
We’ve been playing around with some stuff. I think something is coming in the near future, but for now, I can’t confirm it.

Tease! Do you want to represent Jamaica in the way that she represents Barbados?
I want to put Jamaica on the map in a very positive and impactful way.

Before you became involved in music, did you ever consider leaving Jamaica?
I love Jamaica. It’s a very creative place and I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Jamaican artists are always sure to make their impact at home first, to keep the Jamaican scene alive. It’s bubbling. Everyone is putting everything into it. There’s a lot to be proud of.

You mentioned Chronixx and Protoje — do you think of them as your mentors?
I admire them. I admire their souls, their spirits, their journeys.

What can you tell us about your new single W. with Gunna? It’s fire.
It’s coming in November. We did it in LA. I usually pre-write songs... I get a beat, I go home, I listen to it, I write something. But this came together in the studio. I listened to the beat and the lyrics just came to me on the spot. We had this empty verse and thought, let’s get Gunna. He did it and I was blown away.

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And you’re working on your debut album too?
I’ve only been doing this for two years, it’s all new to me. I’ve got the support and environment to create something very freely now, so I’m taking my time putting it together. I want it to be perfect.

How do you stay inspired?
When I travel — and I’m travelling a lot at the moment — I try to experience different things, see what’s unique to every culture, every spot I hit. That keeps me inspired. When you go to unique places it gives you unique ideas.

Do you think about what your life will look like in 10 years?
I’d like to be inspiring the youth in Jamaica. I’d really love to build my own school for kids who are creative. I’m trying to give back. Make a movement. I was struggling a bit academically — not failing, but not doing as well as I could be. And in that space I found myself filling that gap creatively, which became a success for me. I turned the failure into success. My talent formed me and found me.

What’s one piece of advice you could pass on?
Believe in yourself, be true to yourself, work very hard. Stay positive and remain consistent. Keep working. You never know where it might take you.

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Credits


Photography Mario Sorrenti
Styling Alastair McKimm

Hair Duffy at Streeters.
Make-up Nadia Braz using Anastasia Beverly Hills.
Nail technician Honey at Exposure using Marc Jacobs Beauty
Enamored Hi-Shine Nail Lacquer in Blacquer.
Lighting technician Lars Beaulieu.
Photography assistance Kotaro Kawashima and Javier Villegas.
Styling assistance Madison Matusich and Milton Dixon III.
Hair assistance Lukas Tralmer.
Production Katie Fash.
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinmann for DMCASTING.

Interview Hazel Ong
Introduction Frankie Dunn

Koffee wears all clothing (worn throughout) Telfar SS20. All jewellery (worn throughout) model’s own.

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